Lobbying law, Middle East, Top Stories

Law firm made to register as Turkish agent after getting $15 million over two decades

The longtime legal counsel to the Turkish Embassy in Washington has registered as a Turkish foreign agent in the latest fallout from the Justice Department’s increasingly strict interpretation of what constitutes lobbying.

Washington law firm Saltzman & Evinch disclosed on June 29 that it had signed a new one-year, $1.1 million contract with the embassy back on Dec. 21. The contract for legal advice and analysis was signed by firm principal Gunay Evinch and Ambassador Serdar Kilic.

In addition, the firm belatedly disclosed almost $15 million in payments from the embassy dating all the way back to 2000. And it registered Evinch and four other agents on the account: Co-principal David Saltzman, partner Efe Poturoglu, associate attorney Rachel Denktas and consultant Gani Kuseyri.

The filings come in the wake of an April 21 advisory opinion from the Department of Justice requiring registration. While the recipient of the opinion is redacted, the specifics of the case track closely with Saltzman & Evinch’s registration.

Law firms working for foreign governments are broadly exempt from having to register as foreign agents as long as they stick to legal representation before US courts and government agencies. But the Justice Department has made clear this “does not include attempts to influence or persuade agency personnel or officials” outside of judicial or agency proceedings, through lobbying or public relations campaigns for example.

Saltzman & Evinch did not respond to a request for comment. But in its filing, it suggests that its coordination with Turkish lobbyists and public relations firms could bring it under the jurisdiction of the Justice Department’s Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) unit:

Saltzman & Evinch registration with Department of Justice

In recent months, the firm notably offered counsel regarding Turkey sanctions legislation from House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) that passed the House of Representatives in October, according to its filing. The firm also offered advice on the Senate version of the annual National Defense Authorization Act, which likewise threatened sanctions over Turkey’s intervention in northern Syria and its purchase of a Russian missile defense system.

“Although [Saltzman & Evinch] is uncertain whether such analyses have actually been used in lobbying or public relations activities by or on behalf of Turkey,” the firm wrote, it has “reason to believe that the Embassy of Turkey in Washington, DC, occasionally has shared them with Turkey’s lobbyists and public relations firms.”

In its April 12 memo, the Department of Justice identified several instances of activities that constitute political consulting or public-relations counsel, including:

  • Providing legal advice and analysis on law and policy regarding matters and development that concern and affect US-[foreign country] relations, such as . . . pending legislation, and executive decisions and policy;
  • Attending regular meetings between Embassy officials and [foreign country]’s U.S. lobbyists where proposed legislation and legislative strategy are discussed;
  • Sharing memorandum prepared by [US firm] with [foreign country]’s lobbyists and public relations firm regarding pending legislation in the House of Representatives;
  • Drafting, at the request of the Embassy, potential responses to media inquiries to be delivered by the Embassy about litigation in which [US firm] was counsel of record; and
  • Providing the Embassy with written arguments against passage of resolution in House of Representatives.

Last year, the Wall Street Journal reported that the firm had also helped gather information about exiled cleric Fethullah Gulen and his followers on behalf of Ankara. The Turkish government accuses Gulen of being behind a 2016 failed coup to topple President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

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The disclosures come as law firms are being extra cautious following last year’s $4.6 million fine against Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom. That firm was found to have lied to the Department of Justice about its role in a public relations campaign for the government of Ukraine.

“Based on its awareness of and involvement in Ukraine’s public relations campaign, Skadden had an obligation to register with the Department of Justice under FARA, but it failed to do so,” the Justice Department said in a January 2019 press release.

The department doubled down in December with an advisory opinion stating that public relations help such as providing “factual responses to media inquiries” about litigation, issuing “press releases containing facts regarding the litigation” and engaging in press conferences about litigation are registrable activities under FARA.

The Department of Justice had no comment about the Saltzman & Evinch registration. But the recent flurry of activity has prompted warnings from the legal community.

“It has become increasingly clear that many services provided by law firms to non-U.S. clients require registration under the act,” Perkins Coie wrote in a March 2020 post. “While many law firms have relied on the ‘legal exemption’ from FARA registration, the US Department of Justice (DOJ) has highlighted this exemption’s limited scope in several recent advisory opinions, and we have seen a corresponding uptick in law firm registrations. Lawyers who work for foreign clients outside of formal court or agency proceedings should understand and review closely their potential FARA obligations.”

The National Law Review made a similar case in June, arguing that FARA enforcement “is the most aggressive in decades.”